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These boots weren’t made for walking: fashion as art

Like Prince, Michael and Britney, fashion designer Valentino has surpassed his surname. The notorious orange-toned Italian designer is synonymous with high glamour and commands a following to rival any pop-star.

This August, the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art will open Valentino: Retrospective: Past, Present Future, a collection of the fashion house’s garments from 1959 – 2008. The exhibition announcement was met with a mixture of joyous woops among fashion enthusiasts and barely disguised grumbling from the art world.

Extreme parties in the latter group scoffed the exhibition as a cheap trick to entice audiences who would otherwise avoid galleries. Fashion is not art, they denounced with finality. And that distasteful garb should not be hung in a gallery, unless it’s hung and quartered.

The salacious subject has been hotly debated among academic circles and arts media. But it seems an impossible argument to either win or lose when the definition of art itself is fraught with personal interpretation and subjectivity.

Some argue that the integrity of fashion is compromised by the actual wearing of the garment. So while a piece of clothing is conceived and produced by a designer with creative intention, the instant it is worn it is no longer art. In other words, these boots were made for walkin’ (and not for a Perspex display case).

In my opinion, resting the onus for what is ‘art’ on the practicality or lack thereof of an item is overly simplistic. Just because something is functional, does it make it any less meaningful as art? Must art remain the domain of that which is deemed aesthetically viable by the experts?

In my humble not-trained-in-art opinion, we can each choose to discern ‘art’ in a variety of ways. Only the wearer of a garment can decide whether it is art or Supré. Oops, did I write that?

My relationship to any art work relies not only on its immediate sensory impact but on the story of its ‘creator’ and its historical context. The painting in a frame on a wall might be beautiful. But it is the despondent female in a sketch created by a lothario whose neglected wife stayed by his side until his last absinth-tinged breath, that intrigues.

Likewise, a dress on a Valentino store mannequin is indisputably beautiful; the fabrics, colours and textures are balanced perfectly. But looking at Jackie Onassis’ 1968 white lace mini wedding dress has a deeper meaning. It is symbolic of the mix of immense change and classicism that defined the 1960s; it is the glamour of an emerging alliance between politics and Hollywood. It’s a family’s grand fortune and failure. Summarily, it is much more than a frock.

When I visited the Vivienne Westwood exhibition held by the National Gallery of Australia in late 2004, I was forever changed. It wasn’t a trip to the shops to scope out an outfit for Saturday night; it was a new way of seeing clothing.

I was struck by the creative evolution of the designer, ranging from her 1970s collections of kinky rubber barely-clothing to opulent tartan dresses in rich silks and tweed which became her signature style.

I was also inspired by her working class background, eccentric personal style, rejection of commercialism and the forms, fabrics and colours of the garments.

The Westwood exhibition gave me the chance to appreciate the garment as a reflection of its time and creator. I’d need to sell my left foot to buy a trademark Westwood handbag (assuming the foot brings in at least $900). But viewing the pieces as art diminished my appetite to own and replaced it with a hunger to learn.

Perhaps it is my in-built-gen-y-attitude-problem talking but I maintain that if Valentino is the jolt that inspires learning, surely there is no need to dispute the value of fashion exhibited as art.

As the red-faced argument over fashion as art puffs and bubbles toward an undoubtedly inconclusive climax, I am confident that even a ‘cheap trick’ exhibition will inspire patrons to see beyond the ordinary and understand art. And I, for one, will be first in line.

2 thoughts on “These boots weren’t made for walking: fashion as art

  1. Absolutely, I love this piece, Sarah!

    As I was reading the first parts of this I has it in my mind that I was going to explain in my comment that I definitely think that clothes can be art! I feel that if you art can be something you express yourself through, why shouldn’t clothing be a part of this? Then again, I do believe it’s defined by you, not the fact that you and 200 000 000 other people are wearing the same, cheap-probably-slave-laboured pieces that will fall apart in five washes.

    I would really like to see this exhibition!

  2. Thanks Siobhan; I appreciate it! Incidentally, is featuring a piece on the ‘The Queen’s Year’ exhibition at Buckingham Palace in London, which features a selection of her Royal Ascot hats. Not sure they’re in the same league as Valentino, but interesting…

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